Thoughts Upon Rereading Melville’s Masterpiece Moby-Dick

Earlier I laid out a 2023 reading regimen for myself. You can find that link here:

Reading Well: More than a Resolution

Several of the books/series I am going through are leviathans. In the current edition of Moby-Dick I am reading, there are over 600 pages. I am quite familiar with Moby-Dick as the literary masterpiece it is, and so the length of the novel does not intimidate me or hopefully anyone else who dives into its sea of profundities. But even if it does intimidate you, please see it through. Press on. Stick with it. Melville’s encyclopedic wisdom is in these pages. Plus, it’s just a masterful story of will, of good and evil, of humanity and inhumanity, of the great enduring truths of the human condition.

In the copy I’m using, it is marked up from my previous readings. Below are just a few of the places where characters from the novel, or the narrative voice, or perhaps Melvillean avatars utter thought-provoking gems:

What could be more full of meaning?–for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favourable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow” (55).

And one of the funniest scenes is when Ishmael meets Queequeg. Thinking Queequeg is some degenerate cannibal and that he (Ishmael) is the refined and sophisticated person, Ishmael begins to learn that things are often not what they appear. When Ishmael discovers he has to share a bunk with a tatooed cannibal, he (Ishmael) at first is prideful and resentful. But as he gets to know Queequeg, Ishmael learns that virtue abides in action rather than in appearance:

What’s all this I have been making about, thought I to myself–the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (38).

And of course one of the most familiar passages comes near the beginning of the adventure when Ishmael, trying to understand his reasons for wanting to take to the sea, has this interior monologue:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land. Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (19).

The characters loom large in this masterpiece, too: Ishmael, Queequeq, Starbuck, Ahab, the sea, and, of course, the whale.

And the meanings are nearly inexhaustible in the book: What does the whale represent? Why Ahab’s animus? Why the motif of sailors and sea? Why all references to Jonah from Scripture? Why the anger against the way things are? Why wrath rather than worship? The questions are nearly inexhaustible, too. If one could read only ten of the greatest novels ever penned, Moby-Dick would have to be on that list. And it will repay you in riches each time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s